By TED CARTER
Georgia once paid its residents to drive hybrid vehicles. Today, it is charging owners of the electric automobiles $200 a year to drive on Georgia roads.
The registration fee on hybrids, which climbs to $300 for commercial vehicles, brought strong protests but survived as part of an extensive 2015 transportation funding revamp that is projected to generate $1 billion for maintaining Georgia’s transportation infrastructure.
The transportation overhaul eliminated a $5,000 tax credit for electric vehicles.
The revamp converted the state’s motor fuels sale tax of 4 cents a gallon to an excise tax of 26 cents (29 cents for diesel). In addition to indexing the excise tax to inflation, Georgia decided to cease applying the one penny local sales tax to any portion of a motor fuels sale above $3 a gallon.
Georgia motorists in the end pay about 7 cents more a gallon for fuel than they did previously.
Truckers are paying an additional fee of $50 to $100 a year based on vehicle weight to defray the cost of the wear and tear commercial trucks put on roadways and bridges.
The state’s transportation revamp even hit hotel lodgers, assessing a $5 a night fee on rooms.
The hotel tax came in at the last minute and passed without the support of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. All other elements of the bill had the Chamber’s support, said Seth Millican, executive director of the Chamber’s Georgia Transportation Alliance.
The Mississippi Economic Council, the Georgia’s Chamber’s Mississippi counterpart, is hoping for a similar outcome in early 2016 when its business members present a study detailing the state’s transportation shortcomings and options for paying to fix them. The MEC’s 15-member transportation task force is expected to issue its report any day now.
Millican’s advice to the MEC and its members: “Be very intentional in the way you talk about it.”
Specifically, take pains to relate how the money spent improves the lives of Mississippians and their livelihoods, he said.
And push for crafting of the transportation legislation to show value for the dollar in terms of money spent on transportation, he said. Georgia did this by eliminating about $200 million a year in sales taxes that local governments were diverting from the state transportation fund into their general funds.
Georgia had smoothed the path to passage for the transportation legislation, House Bill 170, by eliminating vehicle registration fees that counties assessed as an annual ad valorem tax, just as Mississippi counties do.
“I think it has absolutely been helpful,” Millican said of scrapping the “birthday” tax on car tags.
Just like Mississippi lawmakers, Georgia legislators have huge constituencies of right wing Tea Party voters. Chamber representatives sought audiences with these voters across Georgia, said Millican, who oversaw the state Chamber’s lobbying on the transportation measure.
“We gave them a seat at the table for policy discussions. This gave us an opportunity to learn what really matters to these folks on the hard right. That made a huge difference,” he said. “It wasn’t always fun but it did cut down” on the overall rancor the transportation bill generated.
Millican conceded the $5 night fee on hotel rooms angered hoteliers and would have brought strong resistance from the Georgia Chamber had the provision not been inserted in the final hours of the bill’s consideration.
“That was not something we advocated,” he said, and added if the lodging industry can present data showing a big drop in visitors, the Chamber will join a push to seek a revision of the bill.
So far, there’s been no sign of a drop off, Millican said. “We’re having record visitors.”
Another key provision of the Georgia legislation allows a county to join with neighboring counties to ask their voters to approve a special local option sales tax for regional transportation improvements.
Millican said he is having conversations with his counterparts in such states as Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee and Oklahoma. All of these states are considering extensive changes in transportation funding to account for lower gasoline tax collections brought about by more fuel-efficient vehicles. He said he tells them, “If Georgia can do it any state can do it.”